Flattery Will Get You Everywhere: E.O. Wilson’s Social Conquest of Earth

E.O. Wilson ALLELE lecture

E.O. Wilson gives 1st ALLELE lecture of 2012-13 series, “The Social Conquest of Earth” (Photo by Virgil Beasley III).

Edward O. Wilson was the first speaker for this year’s ALLELE series at the University of Alabama.  I began a post on his talk soon after but found it so boring I didn’t come back to it.  Then Max Stein posted on his blog “The People’s Anthropologist” a summary of the most interesting aspect of his visit to those who aren’t already familiar with the subject of his recent book (“E.O. Wilson’s 3 Tips for a Career in Research & Other Easy Recipes“), further undermining my motivation to finish the post.  However, as I go to put together a post regarding our most recent visitor, I realize I have a few photos from the Wilson lecture that are otherwise unused on my iPad & so will salvage what there is worth salvaging.

Me & Ed Wilson

Here I am with my new buddy, Ed Wilson. I am not in pain. I think I am smiling. It’s a family trait.

First off, this was the biggest talk we’ve had since I’ve been on campus (just over 3 years) & was handed to us on a silver platter.  Dr. Wilson is a native Alabamian & a UA graduate who speaks is still fond of his home state & alma mater.  My dean handed us this talk, as Dr. Wilson was in town to be acknowledged by the Alabama Humanities Foundation & had agreed to be a scholar-in-residence while in town.  I had the honor of introducing Dr. Wilson to an audience of around 900 people (OK, I used to say 800 & seem to be growing that number like a fish story with each telling, but it was a shitload of people–a larger audience than I had ever been in front of).  But first, we went to dinner, then I gave him a ride to the conference center.  At the restaurant & on the way over, Dr. Wilson displayed singular curiosity about the research of everyone at the table.  I was truly honored by the support he showed toward the research we’re doing here at Alabama & the personal interest he took in my Religious Ecology Study.  And then (here’s the fish story part), it was especially groovy when he pointed out to that audience of 1,000–er, 900ish people that “cutting edge research is being conducted right here at the University of Alabama by researchers like Professor Lynn.”  Can I excerpt that clip from the iTunesU to include in my T&P dossier (here is a link to the ALLELE lectures, including Dr. Wilson’s, in their entirety)?

I tweeted throughout his lectures.  Here is a summary, much (if not all) of which is explored in his new book:

  • Eusociality or “true complex social organization” is extremely rare in evolutionary history. It is the result of numerous series of accidents based on rare preadaptations.  The essential preadaptation of eusociality is the rearing of young in a nest.  Many species are on the verge of eusociality, like African wild dogs, altricial birds, etc.
  • You have to have pulpy fingertips & flat nails to make tools (future sci-fi writers take note when crafting eusocial aliens).
  • Brain growth from habilines 500cc to 1500cc of H. sapiens is one of the most rapid advances of a complex organ ever recorded.  This is likely due to the habiline shift to meat-eating (Wrangham’s hypothesis).
  • By 60kya, when H. sapiens broke out of Africa, they were definitively eusocial.
  • When you start dividing labor, the reading of intention becomes critical–developing gossip skills was essential to eusociality.  Group selection was the driving force of the human explosion.
  • Conflict between the individual & group is with us eternally.  We experience eternal individuality/sociality confliction.  “If you question the human fascination with conflict, pause a moment to reflect on the fate of…SEC football.”

    E.O. Wilson talking to EvoS students

    E.O. Wilson telling EvoS students how to become successful scientists

I picked Wilson up the next morning to bring him to campus for a meeting with EvoS students & my tenure status came up.  He said to me, “Don’t worry.  You’ll definitely get tenure, unless you punch President Bailey [the newly hired University of Alabama president] in the face or something for no good reason.”  I’ve been encouraged to get this in writing as one of my required affidavits from outside scholars.  This left me wondering if I could punch President Bailey in the face for a good reason & still get tenure.  Sadly, President Bailey went & quit about a month after getting hired, so there goes the relevance of my letter.

 The best part of the visit was the meeting with students.  This is not because I didn’t enjoy his talk or having my praises sung in front of 10,000 screaming fans, but because it was just awesome to see how personable & inspiring Ed Wilson is in talking to students.  He dished, telling stories of competing with James Watson (co-discoverer of DNA) when Wilson was a young gun at Harvard (Watson was NOT happy when Wilson was pushed thru to tenure first). He told about a student the previous night who had brought in a 1st edition copy of Island Biogeography for him to sign & how the student turned out to be the grandson of ecologist Robert MacArthur, one of the most brilliant people Wilson ever met.  He talked about coining the term “evolutionary biology” with George Simpson (who knew?).  And he briefly summarized some of the key elements of his forthcoming book, Letters to a Young Scientist.  Read Max’s summary for the meat of it, but some quotes I tweeted that he left out are as follows:

  • Don’t be a galley slave to bring glory to your advisor without looking for your own chance to stand out
  • You don’t have to know mathematics–just be literate enough to recognize the formulas
  • Entrepreneurship is more important than exceptional intelligence
  • Play it safe to get a grant, but plan something grander at the same time. Be a journeyman AND entrepreneur.
  • Always try to get the right partners to help you.  Don’t do it all yourself or it will bog you down.
  • Very bright people are often not innovators–120 IQ is the optimum of intellect (Wilson scored a 123 IQ in high school).  People with higher IQs think of lots of great ideas but get bored easily & don’t follow thru .  People with lower IQs think of a few good ideas & squeeze as much out of them as they can for fear they’ll never have another one.  You’ve got to have as much grit to do work as intellect–much of achievement is non-creative.
  • You are needed!
  • Wilson got to work on an online biology course with Steve Jobs.  Jobs told his biographer they were going to revolutionize education after the meeting.  Wilson hopes that will still happen despite Jobs’ passing.

    EvoS students with E.O. Wilson

    EvoS students with E.O. Wilson

Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he directs the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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